Movie Reviews

DOC NYC 2021: ‘Storm Lake’ Review – A Warm Tale of Journalistic Passion

"Storm Lake" is an inspiring and pleasant documentary focused on a small-town newspaper struggling to survive.

In an age where people prefer to get their news on Facebook and Twitter, a small family-run newspaper fights to stay afloat using the most valuable tool available: journalistic passion. Anchored by Pulitzer Prize winner Art Cullen, The Storm Lake Times delivers the local news to the 10,000-plus residents of Storm Lake, Iowa, and by doing so, they prove how important true journalism can be for a community. 

Directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison, “Storm Lake” chronicles life on The Storm Lake Times in a light and charming manner. It follows the journalists — mainly Art, his wife Dolores and his son Tom — as they cover numerous news items relevant to the community, from elections to a local trying his luck at a famous TV talent show. We soon learn that the town has a big Latinx community, and the newspaper makes sure to give them a voice.There’s something wonderful about watching a friendly journalist working hard to cover a new bilingual education program that is designed to create inclusion.

Given that big newspapers don’t cover the small communities, Cullen’s mission becomes crucial for Storm Lake. Something as simple as reporting on the first baby born in the new year creates union in the town, but most importantly, by delivering facts, this tiny newspaper maintains the focus on journalism as the best tool to educate its community. 

Of course, the business is a hard one to maintain. Many small newspapers have succumbed to the digital age and reduced populations in rural areas. Throughout the documentary, we learn about the struggles faced by Cullen and his team in this tough landscape that only gets worse when COVID-19 hits; narratively speaking, this stage of the film is particularly fascinating as we witness how The Storm Lake Times explores new channels to cover crucial news regarding the safety of the town while in lockdown and fighting for their own economic survival.

It’s a joy to follow Art Cullen throughout the doc. He’s a nice man with white hair who calmly explains what is going on in the newspaper and charms his way to meetings and debates. Even when conservative readers disagree with his liberal opinions, they are interested in reading about his views. This ideological coexistence is surprising, hopeful and a sign of Cullen’s journalistic prowess. His easy demeanor and quiet wisdom make “Storm Lake” a breeze to watch.

With the help of tight editing, inspiring characters and intimate cinematography, “Storm Lake” is a pleasant documentary that focuses on the power of journalism to create change. And it does so with a chill vibe: Without the need to get into heavy topics, it encourages the viewer to respect and admire a noble profession that is sometimes taken for granted.

“Storm Lake” was part of the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival 2021 and DOC NYC 2021 programs. It will premiere on PBS on November 15 (streaming and TV).

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